The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), in DaPrato v. Mass. Water Resources Authority, has affirmed a jury’s finding that an employee was wrongfully terminated for taking a vacation to Mexico during a period of Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave. In doing so, the SJC also upheld the trial court’s decision to award the employee liquidated damages under the FMLA.
Law. The FMLA states that a judge shall award liquidated damages in accordance with the statute’s provisions if an employer is found liable for violating the FMLA. Under the FMLA, liquidated damages include “any wages, salary, employment benefits, or other compensation denied or lost to such employee by reason of the violation.” However, where an employer demonstrates to the court that its violation of the FMLA was “in good faith” and that the employer had “reasonable grounds” for believing that its conduct was not in violation of the FMLA, the awarding of liquidated damages is in the discretion of the judge and is not mandatory.
Background. In January 2015, the employee requested two months of FMLA leave beginning in early February for foot surgery and recovery time. The employer would not permit him to return to work until he received his physician’s authorization, which he could not obtain until his next scheduled appointment on March 26th.
On March 12th, while still on FMLA leave, the employee took a vacation to Mexico, and he returned to work on March 30. HR subsequently learned that the employee had vacationed to Mexico while on FMLA leave. It investigated the issue, truly believing that it was inappropriate for a sick or disabled employee to go on vacation while on FMLA leave. The employer ultimately determined that the employee had lied about the medical conditions that were the basis for his FMLA leave and terminated him. In response, the employee sued the employer in state court, alleging violations of the FMLA.
At trial, the jury found that the employer had violated FMLA by terminating the employee in retaliation for taking FMLA leave for his foot surgery, and the employee was awarded $1.3 million in liquidated damages. In turn, the employer appealed the decision the SJC.
SJC Review. On appeal, the SJC affirmed the trial court’s judgment and award of liquidated damages to the employee. The SJC observed that the FMLA requires an employer’s conduct to be based both “in good faith” and on “reasonable grounds” to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages for violations of the FMLA. In view of this standard, in the instant case the SJC found that even though the employer believed it was acting in good faith, it lacked objectively reasonable grounds for its belief.
In particular, the SJC concluded that the employer’s policy, where it considered all vacations taken by employees during periods of FMLA leave as improper, was not reasonable. The SJC explained that an employer may not treat the fact that an employee went on vacation during FMLA leave, by itself, as being impermissible. The SJC noted that a vacation may or may not be consistent with medical leave depending on whether the employee’s conduct while on vacation is consistent with the basis for the medical leave. Only when an employer is in receipt of information regarding an employee’s conduct while on vacation may it consider inconsistencies between such conduct and the claimed reason for leave when evaluating whether leave has been properly or improperly used. For these purposes, it is irrelevant whether the employee is recovering at home or on vacation and that the employee’s recovery “could take place in a warm climate as well as in a New England winter.”
The SJC ultimately concluded that the employer had adopted a blanket assumption that an employee’s vacation during a period of FMLA leave represented an improper use of leave time, and its failure to properly investigate the employee’s conduct while on vacation was a violation of the FMLA which left it unable to avoid the FMLA’s liquidated damages provisions.